This photograph of the Poe Museum’s Old Stone House dates to around 1881. The bearded man standing by the front door is R. L. Potter, the Wheelbarrow Man. Long before anyone ever thought to have a Poe Museum in the Old Stone House, Potter used the building to display his own collection of 1,600 curiosities, which included rattlesnakes, two wolves, rocks and minerals collected on his travels, and—according to one source—a live bear. Admission was probably about fifteen cents, which is the price he charged when his collection was on display on Marshall Street, according to an advertisement in the November 29, 1881 Daily Dispatch.
Potter was born in Marietta, Ohio but moved to Albany, New York, where he had a wife and three children. When Grant won the Presidency, Potter refused to shave his beard until a Democrat was in office. He earned the name Wheelbarrow Man by pushing a wheelbarrow carrying 100 pounds from Albany to San Francisco in 1878. He walked the 4,100 miles in just 160 days, becoming famous in the process. During the trip, he adopted and tamed two wolf cubs, which followed him for the rest of his life. He also filled his wheelbarrow with rocks, minerals, live specimens, and other “curiosities” he found along the way. Upon Potter’s arrival in San Francisco, the poet Samuel Booth wrote “The Song of the Wheelbarrow Man,” a stanza of which reads, “He started from Albany five months ago,/ And trundled his wheelbarrow steady and slow,/ In storm and in sunshine, through dust, wind, and rain,/ Four thousand odd miles trudged the Wheelbarrow Man.”
When asked why he took the trip, Potter told reporters he wanted to make his name doing something no one else had ever done. That distinction was short-lived. In a publicity stunt to sell papers, newspaper owner George Hearst offered a prize to whoever could win a wheelbarrow race from San Francisco to New York. Potter’s competition was L. P. Federmeyer of Paris, France. Federmeyer won the race, but Potter continued to tour the country, never returning to his home in Albany because, according to a May 19, 1881 interview in the National Republican, “I have three children there. The reason I don’t go home is that if I get there with my children I can’t get away.”
In the same interview, Potter mentions that he has exhibited his collection of curiosities in a number of cities and will take it to Virginia. By July 27, 1881, he was showing his “museum of natural curiosities” in Woodstock, Virginia, according to the Shenandoah Herald of that date. By November 27, 1881, when an advertisement for his museum appeared in the Daily Dispatch, he was in Richmond.
The exact dates of his time in the Old Stone House are unknown. An 1894 guide to the Old Stone House (which was then in service as the Washington’s Headquarters Antiquarium and Relic Museum) states that Potter rented the house for eight months beginning in 1879. Poe Museum trustee Rosemarie Mitchell, who is researching a history of the Old Stone House, theorizes Potter might have rented the house in late 1882 or early 1883. By 1883, he returned to New York to accept the challenge of pushing his wheelbarrow from New York City to New Orleans.
Potter died shortly afterwards. The April 30, 1883 issue of the New York Times reported that he was killed while crossing the railroad bridge over the Yadkin River in North Carolina. His last surviving pet wolf remained at his master’s side and was retrieved by Potter’s widow.
As the Poe Museum celebrates its 90th anniversary this year, it is easy to forget that the Old Stone House was already a Richmond landmark—and even a museum—decades before the Poe Foundation took over the property. Although the bear, wolves, and rattlesnakes are long gone, we still like to think we have an interesting, if slightly less dangerous, collection of Poeana.